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The "Neat!" epidemic

March 24, 2006

Daniel Lyons, the Forbes writer whose article on abusive blogging set off a blogospheric hissy fit a couple of months ago, has launched a rhetorical explosive device in Microsoft's direction. He reports on Microsoft's "People Ready" media event last week, which in a curious bit of timing was staged right before the company began announcing further delays in its new versions of Windows and Office. The delays came as no surprise, writes Lyons, given what he saw at the event:

The new programs are phenomenally complex, with scores of buttons and pull-down menus and myriad connections among various applications. A Microsoft VP zipped through a demo, moving information from Outlook to Powerpoint to Groove to some kind of social networking program that lets you see how your colleagues and your colleagues' colleagues rate various Web sites. Meanwhile, 500 tech buyers sat there in the dark, their eyes glazing over from the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness of most of this stuff. The audience laughed out loud when the Microsoft guy showed off a kludgey system that lets you fetch Outlook e-mail messages using voice commands from a cell phone.

It sounds a lot like the "digital lifestyle" presentation that Bill Gates gave at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. That's when Gates showed off a big, elaborate video screen for your kitchen that would enable you to, among other things, follow multiple personalized news feeds while tracking the second-by-second movements of your family members. "Neat!" blogged Robert Scoble, while all the other inhabitants of the known universe continued eating their bowls of cereal and wondering where they put their car keys.

Microsoft is not alone in overestimating people's desire for Neat! software features. Even Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, not to mention all the Web 2.0 mini businesses, seem intent on waging feature wars that mean a whole lot to a very few and nothing at all to everyone else. At this point, the whole tired affair seems to point not to an overabundance of creativity but to a lack of imagination. Has the success of the Blackberry and the iPod and Netflix and the original Google search page somehow failed to register? Life and work aren't all that complicated, folks. Deal with it.

Comments

Here, here. I work in this business and find the whole thing a bit too much. I don't want my cell phone to do anything but dial OUT, and I don't need to categorize every freekin' thing I read or write. With that said, I think RSS is the greatest invention since the ipod because it SIMPLIFIES what I want when I want it, just like podcasting.

Posted by: Jeff Tidwell at March 24, 2006 01:53 PM

I expect charities to spend 80-90% of their revs on charitable causes and I expect software vendors (and other tech vendors) to similarly spend their revs on pushing the technology frontier. Unfortunately, the industry has gotten away with spending less than 15% of revs on R&D (IBM at 7%) even as it spends 50% on SG&A.

I hear what you are saying but it is good to see any innovation coming out of our bigger tech vendors. You and may disagree on what is relevant innovation. I for one want to see much more coming out and let the market pick and choose the winners. Better than paying half of each dollar to sales and accountants - you are guaranteed no innovation from that spend...

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at March 24, 2006 03:10 PM

Amen.

Vinnie: Unfortunately, the accountants and the MBAs are running things.

Posted by: ordaj at March 24, 2006 04:20 PM

Gates must be thinking we are all living in some fancy Xanadu-like place with 20 bathrooms and a heliport. Surely our wildest dream involves some f*****g robot reading our minds through a butt probe and determining from the measurements what our music programme for the day should be.

I say to them: get an analog life!

Posted by: Alain Rogister at March 24, 2006 04:33 PM

I read an article last year about how Bill Gates goes off by himself for a week every year to chew over all kinds of neat ideas like the ones you describe. There is a difference between innovation and masturbation. He should take some customers with him next time.

Posted by: Tom at March 24, 2006 04:55 PM

I also think this is a case where trying a bunch of things and seeing what sticks is a good way to go. While we can hold up examples like the iPod and Google's original search page, look at what the companies behind those very elegant solutions have given us since. Recent Jobs presentations have involved somewhat complicated integration features (e.g. Photocasting), and Google has offered a few products that have underwhelmed (Reader comes to mind with it's interface that tried something new but offered a worse experience).

When a great idea comes along, it seems so very simple, but I think that those great ideas are fertilized by seeing all the complicated features that research groups kick out. Someone, maybe even from within MS, will see some Outlook integration demo and think of a way of doing things that is so simple that it just works (ala the iPod and Google).

Posted by: Anthony Cowley at March 25, 2006 12:17 PM

So Nicholas and those that agree see nothing in the new wave of innovation? They're not wearing the same specs as I. Innovation is essential to progress and up to now, it is the small, largely self-funded crews that are showing their larger bretheren the way in developing 'just good enough' services for the masses. Doesn't sound like a bad business model to me. The masses get to decide, not the MBAs.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at March 26, 2006 05:02 PM

Frankly, Dennis et al., I didn't see this as a post about innovation but rather about losing sight of people.

Posted by: Nick at March 26, 2006 06:49 PM

Microsoft would be far better off concentrating its efforts in keeping criminals out of people's systems and data instead of trying to run their toasters and ovens...

Posted by: Bob McIlree at March 27, 2006 07:12 AM

IMHO - "Neat" in the case of MSFT has more to do with securing their leadership, rather than leading edge technology. There have been many articles/editorial content written about MSFT putting "sub-par" software and applications on the market. I read somewhere (can not name the source) that the installed version of MS Excel uses only about 20% of what is installed - the rest of the "code" is not used (old code), used very seldom (i.e. a custom function), or is just code bloat (comments, etc.).

Posted by: Arnie McKinnis at March 27, 2006 06:45 PM

Agreed. I work in the Healthcare industry and cannot help but draw a comparison to various healthcare IT projects and software packages that mean a whole lot to a very few (hospital administrators and IT staff) and nothing at all to everyone else (physicians and patients).

A very common question in healthcare IT is "how do I get the doctors to buy-in to using 'X' system?"

We're so caught up in face recognition, biometrics and porting health information across systems that we've forgotten the basics: Will physicians or patients realize value? This usually means one of the following - will physicians see more patients or will patients pay less?

There are cases where access to health information adds value but it is all for naught if patients stop visiting doctors because it is too expensive. It is about efficiency, not features.

Posted by: David Denise at March 31, 2006 11:07 AM

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